Lisa Besserman is a long time expat and the Founder and CEO of Startup Buenos Aires. She has been named as one of the Top 100 Women in Tech by Business Insider, is a Forbes Entrepreneur and has been named “Business Innovator of Latin America” by the Council of the Americas. We talk about how she found herself abroad, why she started SUBA, and the current work climate for expats in Argentina.
For starters, how in the world did you find yourself abroad and in Argentina?
At the time I was working in New York working for a technology company. Winter was coming as well as my lease being up on my overpriced Manhattan flat and so I was interested in working remotely for a few months to escape the New York winter. I requested to work remotely and to my surprise they said yes!
I had five days to plan where I wanted to go. I looked at a map and was looking for places that were warm with a similar time zone as New York and I heard great things about Buenos Aires. I didn’t speak Spanish and had no contacts there but for me it was just going to be an adventure for two or three months maximum. So I bought a plane ticket and I brought backpack and laptop and went down to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
And how did you go from remote worker to founding SUBA?
I was pretty active in the New York startup scene around 2009-2010 before startups were sexy. So when I came to Argentina, I wanted to get involved in the local startup community both to help myself get connected to the community there but also see if I could help and make a little bit of an impact.
I did some research and was on a quest to find the local startup community and upon this quest I learned a few things: 1.) there was no startup community, which was strange because there were more startups and entrepreneurs in Buenos Aires than I had ever seen in my life. Everyone you meet in Argentina is an entrepreneur or has one degree separation from an entrepreneur. And 2.) there was a severe lack of resources and no type of support system for any sort of entrepreneurial endeavours. So all the entrepreneurs I was meeting were lacking resources of some sort and there was no way for them to satisfy their business needs.
I saw this as both a major problem but also an opportunity. All the elements of a great startup ecosystem existed, but it was a fragmented space and there was nothing fusing all this energy together. And thus, the idea for SUBA was formed.
The actual formation started very simply. It was just myself meeting new people and connecting different entrepreneurs to other entrepreneurs or resources that I had met. SUBA simply started by bringing together these different people. At the time, I really just planned for it to be a Facebook group or just a meet up once a month.
But something amazing happened virtually overnight. Influencers started getting involved, a team was formed, and in a very short time we have been able scale up it into a proper startup hub. Now, we are connecting Buenos Aires with the world with 10,000 members globally and have brought over $2 million dollars to the local tech scene here.
And is SUBA part of the government in the way, say, startUP Portugal is?
We are independent, but we collaborate with the city government on quite a few initiatives, so our missions are aligned but we are a private organization at this moment. But it is definitively a mutual respect and we hope to collaborate on a deeper level in the near future.
How open is Argentina to foreigners and globalization in general?
Prior to the current government, Argentina was very closed. On a macro-level, they didn’t have open borders, they didn’t work towards globalization, they made it very difficult to do business, they were closed off to global markets, import/export taxes were absurd. The previous government made it a really difficult place to do business.
On a micro level, just for a business to set up a corporate bank account and become a corporate entity it was a very complicated process that took months. And that was for locals. To be a business owner in Argentina, you needed a local business partner in Argentina or have residency, which you could only get through specific means.
The new government is much more pro-business, pro-capital markets, and pro-globalisation. They are making it much easier to open businesses in Argentina. They are creating more open borders to do more trade between nations, they are reducing the import/export taxes, they are creating more transparency of metrics for a freer flowing markets. It is definitely changing drastically.
In fact, just a few days ago they announced that entrepreneurs will soon be able to get tax IDs and bank accounts within 24 hours which is similar to what Chile is doing. Of course, all these new initiatives are new so it will take some time but they are making some really amazing changes and Argentina seems to going in an entirely new direction from the past.
And what was your personal experience getting a work permit and working from Argentina when you first got there?
Argentina is not super strict about their visa laws and restrictions. I was actually on a tourist visa for probably my first year or year and a half and just naturally traveling every three months, resetting my visa. I actually started my company as a tourist which wasn’t a problem because in Argentina there is a thick legal gray area. And then I met my husband and so I received residency status when we got married and then from there we set up the correct business entities and SUBA really started growing. So you obviously can’t grow too big if you are on a tourist visa, but it was really easy to start as a tourist.
What is hot right now in Argentina for jobs?
IT is big as it is most places. Software development, mobile app development, so primarily design and development is what Argentina has the most human capital for and the most growth opportunity for. Financial-tech is also hot.
What is your standard for living like? I have heard Argentina can be a bit expensive compared to other South American cities?
When I first arrived I was a baller because I was earning US dollars working remotely! So bringing that to Buenos Aires, I was living large. Everything compared to New York was inexpensive, especially back in 2012, so I was living a very comfortable life.
Things have changed a bit since then. Inflation is tough and prices have gone up fairly dramatically. It is still cheaper than the US, especially for things like rent and healthcare. Our rent is $1,400 USD but we have a really amazing 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom apartment in the middle of the city. My private healthcare is about 120 USD a month compared to $800 USD.
But also, my husband just went out the other night and got a large pizza and two drinks and it was $40 USD, so that is absurd. The restaurant industry has gotten crazy. It has absolutely gotten more challenging to live here financially over the last few years.
What about the working culture in Argentina? A little more relaxed like other Latin American countries?
Yeah, much more casual here. It is very relationship based and so you are closer with your co-workers which is expected. When you go to an office you kiss everyone hello and people dress more casual. It is very much the mindset of you work to live not live to work. It is very common to go to a cafe to do business or meet a client rather than a formal meeting setting. But that is all a product of relationships being so important.
And what types of things are you doing outside of work?
I’m an entrepreneur, so not much. However the Argentine culture is very social, so lots of rooftop parties and barbecues, going to bars, going to clubs, dinners with friends, etc.. The people are very open to meeting other people, things are always happening, whether it is a music event or a networking event or a birthday party, there is always something socially to do.
How did you make those social connections in the beginning?
It is really easy to meet people. If you go out with one person to a bar, and they bring their friends, you go home with five new friends. That is really common.
I am a pretty social person and I knew some friends of friends in town, and so I met them and their friends and their friend’s friends. Even if I go to a cafe on my own or someone hears me speaking English to someone else, people would approach me and introduce themselves in a way that in New York would be very odd, but here it is very common and normal. And the expat community is very close as well so it is a very open environment. You go to one barbecue with 40 people and you leave with a social calendar for the next month.
Any general advice for someone who wants to work abroad in Argentina?
My only advice is that, some people try to land jobs before they are physically here, and that is possible with multinational corporations or smaller consulting firms, but it can also be really tough because relationships are so important. Being here to apply in person, to network, to meet the people who you want to work for probably makes it easier.
What about the language barrier issues?
Being an English speaker was actually a bit of an advantage because people want to learn English and it opens up a world of people who are interested in learning or practicing their English.
Professionally, it depends on the company you work for. For some you really need to be proficient in Spanish because they work in Spanish, but others will work in English so it isn’t a problem.
Mostly, you should have a foundation of Spanish and then you can gain fluency once you get here.